A Memorable Experience in Shanghai

Over the duration of the four months I’ve lived here in Shanghai, while valuing my experience here, encountered many challenges. From adjusting to the different foods to figuring out how to communicate with limited Mandarin speaking skills, my entire time here has definitely been eye opening. I came to study abroad in China to further understand my Chinese heritage, improve my Mandarin, and to overall comprehend the Chinese culture through a hands on experience. While the majority of my time was spent on studying/working for my classes, the most memorable activity within Shanghai was learning about the Friends café and being able to spend time there.

The FRIENDS cafe had originated from the TV show friends, as I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with. As one of the biggest TV shows in the U.S. and one of my personal favorite shows, it’s no wonder that there are replicas. At first I was slightly confused as to how this coffee shop was even available, as most U.S. television shows are censored in China, but according to research a lot of Chinese citizens actually watch friends in order to learn English.

Through this initial research on the cafe, I discovered the Friends cafe was a mockup created by a friends superfan named Gunther (if you haven’t seen the show, Gunther is the owner of the coffee shop the main characters frequent), and he opened up friends cafes in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. Since friends is such a popular show within China, he wanted to emphasize that demand for the show and portray it as a reality. As it’s shown in the show, the Friends cafe has a giant logo on the front with the name central perk, and the inside is almost identical to the show itself (as seen in the figure below). All the items on the menu, from coffee to snacks are all modeled after food items from the show as well.

I thought this coffee shop was a perfect place to analyze through the lens of western influence, as not only is the cafe based off of an American T.V. show, everything on the menu is westernized as well. It was amazing to me to see how big of an impact such a specific aspect of American culture, that being a T.V. show, influenced a single Chinese citizen to create these three independent coffee shops. From the menus to all the signs and decorations, everything was completely in English (the menu and the T.V. did have Chinese subtitles). As with my initial thought of how it was possible for Friends to be so popular in China, once I reached the cafe, I was surprised to see how few foreigners were there and how many locals were enjoying the cafe – and not even just the food, most of the people were either studying and enjoying the ambiance, or watching the show itself.

The main significance I found was how casual and normal the entire experience was. From what I’ve learned about China within my courses, and just from personal experiences from living in Shanghai for the past couple of months, I had never seen, on such a large scale, both foreigners and locals just drinking coffee and enjoying the ambiance in such a heavily westernized environment. Usually in my experience, for a such a small, heavily western, independent place, the majority of customers would be foreign.

This particular coffee shop allowed both foreigners and locals to come together to enjoy coffee and T.V., and while in a westernized environment, the Chinese cultural aspect was still present through the Chinese subtitles, needing to speak Chinese to the waiter, and unusual/hard to find location. As China continues to open up, accept foreigners, their influences, and their cultures, Chinese people are continuously becoming more and more globalized – taking the best aspects and influences from foreigners and creating their own new innovative take. Coffee shops around the world create an atmosphere of coming together, and as China continues to open itself up, that same sense of causal community bond over even such a small aspect of western influence of coffee will become a part of China’s culture as well.

Mutianyu Great Wall

The Great Wall of China is an architectural masterpiece, coming into creation as early as 220 BC through the leadership of Qin Shi Huang. The wall was originally created in order to protect China from foreign invaders along the northern borders in an east to west direction. Despite this seemingly unbreakable wall, the original wall has eroded over the centuries as it was originally made with earth, stones, and wood, and thus was restructured during the Ming Dynasty. The wall stems 13,171 miles in total and is still one of the world’s major wonders.

Although I had previously visited the Great Wall, my second visit did not fail to astound me – especially since we visited the Mutianyu section, which I had previously not been to. There was just so much history and culture embedded within those stones, and you could still feel the resolute and unwavering power of the Chinese. China is known for having one of the most detailed and longest histories, and through our visit it was very clear that the sheer force of China’s history was embedded within the millions of bricks and stones.

We took a cable car up towards a higher elevated part of the wall, and once we arrived at the top, we had two hours to explore the entire section (figure 1, 2). While initially I believed two hours was far too long, it was just the right amount of time. The sky was clear of any clouds, and the temperature was absolutely perfect (warm enough to traverse around without a coat). Traversing the wall itself was quite a challenge – numerous stones were out of place, other tourists were everywhere trying to get through the small entryways, and there were thousands upon thousands of stairs. While I was completely out of breath (due to the stairs), I was able to take a moment to appreciate the sheer force of history that I was climbing across – the amount of physical labor with limited technology, the planning, the execution, the representation of China as a solitary unit standing strong after centuries – it’s all quite incredible to think about. Once I had made it to the top, all the hard work paid off with the incredible view of the wall, the mountains, and the scenery (figure 3).

Though most of us had already visited the Great Wall, I think we were all still in awe by how incredible it was. There is really nothing that can compare to it, and it was one of the few times where I could look past the extreme modernization in the cities and actually see how China has become a leading force in today’s society.

 

Wenhai

Throughout the duration of our travels through the Yunnan province of China, we stopped briefly in Wenhai village righ outside of Lijiang to further our understanding of the Naxi and Yi people and their culture. There are 800 people who belong to this region, and culturally are split into two ethnic groups – the Yi and the Naxi. The Yi live on higher grounds in the mountains, while the Naxi inhabit the lower grounds. These people’s economy and livelihoods rely heavily on farming potatoes, corn, wheat, barley and more along with their livestock of chicken, sheep, goats, cows, pigs, and donkeys. Our advisor, Dr. Bullock, actually had lived here years ago to develop an Ecolodge that is continuing to expand and flourish. This Ecolodge has expanded quite extensively from the times when Dr. Bullock had seen it last, and can now house 12 travelers at a time who want to spend time in Wenhai to explore the village and trek across the beautiful landscape. Completely built from scratch, the housing is equipped with running water, dining rooms, and living rooms all complete with the Naxi touch. The eco lodge relies completely on solar panels and biogas – all created and carried by the Naxi people along with colleagues such as Dr. Bullock. As the people and the culture of Wenhai has been threatened over the past years due to failure of crops and climate change, it was important to work to help preserve the village, its incredible culture, and traditional ways of life. Creating the Ecolodge allowed for travelers and Naxi people themselves to rest comfortably as they continue their journeys exploring the Jade Snow Mountain while also learning about the history of Wenhai.

We were lucky enough to be invited for lunch by Dr. Bullocks old friends from when he worked in the village, and had traditional Naxi food. Although I was unable to eat any of it due to my extensive list of allergies, everyone on our trip claimed the food to be some of the best they’ve had – stemming from the different meats and vegetable dishes to chicken feet – all raised and grown within the village itself.

Wenhai lies at 3100 meters at the base of the Jade Snow Dragon mountain, just outside of Lijiang. There are not enough words to describe the beauty of the Wenhai village – from the distant rolling mountains to the intertwining streams that lead into the lake – it almost seems as if Wenhai has never seen hardship, and has been perfectly preserved throughout the years. Cattle would peacefully roam the roads, chickens would run around us as we walked, and the surrounding mountains gave us all an overwhelming, and much needed, sense of peace. It was an incredible village to visit in its stark comparison to the constant roar of the heavy urbanization in Shanghai. It allowed me to truly grasp that China has such an immense and interesting history that would take centuries to fully comprehend. Being in Wenhai, even only just for a short period of time, gave me a glimpse of that past history that led China to where it is today.

Below are some pictures from our walks around the village, from the streams leading to the lake, the abundance of beautiful flowers and nature, the cattle, to the Ecolodge Dr. Bullock helped form. It still amazes me how serene and completely incredible it was to be there.

 

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